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Necessities and Luxuries in Early-Modern Textile Consumption: Real Values of Worsted Says and Fine Woollens in the Sixteenth-Century Low Countries


  • John H. Munro


If mankind’s three basic necessities have always been food, clothing, and shelter, whose production, trade, and consumption have rightly been a primary focus of economists and economic historians for many generations, we may ask this vital question: how do they distinguish between necessities and luxury products? Indeed, any examination of later-medieval, early-modern commodity prices soon reveals that for all three of these basic categories there was a seamless continuum from the very cheapest to the most expensive goods sold on the market, so that making clear cut divisions becomes virtually impossible. How, when, where, and why did the consumption of food and drink, for example, shift from being a basic necessity to ensure survival to become a luxury that enhances and enriches the quality of life? Obviously the very same considerations apply also to clothing. For many people, if only for a much smaller segment of the population, chiefly to be found in the aristocracy, the higher clergy, and wealthy bourgeoisie, clothing has also served and still serves other wants, in terms of luxury consumption: for decoration and for the assertion of personal values, and especially of one’s social status. Indeed, for such people, luxury textiles may have been deemed as personal ‘necessities’. This study is based upon two statistical tables, for the southern Low Countries, in the early to mid-sixteenth century, which, together permit us to make such a valid contrast between the nature, forms, and relative values of two major types of textiles. Representing ‘necessities’ in clothing are light-weight, coarse, relatively cheap worsted-type says (from the leading producer, Hondschoote, in Flanders); and representing ‘luxuries’ are the heavy-weight, very fine, and very costly woollen broadcloths from Ghent (dickedinnen) in the county of Flanders and Mechelen (Rooslaken) in the neighbouring duchy of Brabant. Table 1 provides the technical features of the composition of the cloths, the type of wools used, warp-counts, the dimensions, and weights, and finally the weight per square metre in grams. The luxury woollen broadcloths in Table 2 were all made uniquely from the finest English wools, then the world’s best; but Table 1 also provides, for comparison, a fine but cheaper woollen (from Armentières) made from a mixture of Spanish merino and English wools. The other textiles in Tables 1 are worsteds and semi-worsted says from several towns in sixteenth-century Flanders (including Hondschoote) and England. Table 2 presents the prices, in pounds groot Flemish for two types of Hondschoote says, and for the luxury woollens of Ghent and Mechelen for the decade 1535 - 1544. Two measures have been adopted in order to calculate the ‘real values’ of these textiles: (1) a comparison of the prices (nominal money-of-account values) of these textiles with the value of a ‘basket of consumables’, the one used to compute the Van der Wee Consumer Price Index for Brabant (Antwerp region); and (2) the purchasing power of wages: i.e., the number of days’ wages that a master mason in Antwerp would have had to spend to acquire each one of these textiles; and more particularly to buy 12 square metres of cloth, for a man’s annual clothing requirement. In terms of the latter measure, the average number of days’ wages required to purchase that same quantity of cloth would have been: 13.725 days for a Hondschoote single say; 16.958 days for a Hondschoote double say; and 5.4 times as many days, 91.413 for a Ghent dickedinnen, and 74.144 days for a Mechelen Rooslaken. That is certainly a much greater gulf in values that would be found today between every-day clothing and luxury apparel, for men at least. Consider that in Toronto, in July 2008, a journeymen carpenter earns a minimum of $33.07 per hour. In 91.413 days (i.e., the number of days’ wages to purchase that Ghent dickedinnen), at 8 hrs a day, that carpenter would earn $24,184 CAD (about € 15,115) and would never spend even 10 percent of that on clothing.

Suggested Citation

  • John H. Munro, 2008. "Necessities and Luxuries in Early-Modern Textile Consumption: Real Values of Worsted Says and Fine Woollens in the Sixteenth-Century Low Countries," Working Papers tecipa-323, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:tor:tecipa:tecipa-323

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Munro, John H., 2007. "The usury doctrine and urban public finances in late-medieval Flanders (1220 - 1550): rentes (annuities), excise taxes, and income transfers from the poor to the rich," MPRA Paper 11012, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Jan 2008.
    2. John H. Munro, 2000. "Wage-Stickiness, Monetary Changes, and Real Incomes in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries, 1300 - 1450: Did Money Really Matter?," Working Papers munro-00-03, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
    3. John H. Munro, 1998. "The 'Industrial Crisis' of the English Textile Towns, c.1290 - c.1330," Working Papers munro-98-02, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
    4. Patrick Chorley, 1987. "The cloth exports of Flanders and northern France during the thirteenth century: a luxury trade?," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 40(3), pages 349-379, August.
    5. John H. Munro, 2000. "The West European Woollen Industries and their Struggles for International Markets, c.1000 - 1500," Working Papers munro-00-04, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
    6. Munro, John H., 2006. "The anti-red shift – to the 'Dark Side': Colour changes in Flemish luxury woollens, 1300 - 1550," MPRA Paper 10876, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Jan 2007.
    7. John H. Munro, 1998. "The Symbiosis of Towns and Textiles: Urban Institutions and the Changing Fortunes of Cloth Manufacturing in the Low Countries and England, 1280 - 1570," Working Papers munro-98-03, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
    8. John H. Munro, 1999. "The Low Countries' Export Trade in Textiles with the Mediterranean Basin, 1200-1600: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Comparative Advantages in Overland and Maritime Trade Routes," Working Papers munro-99-01, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
    9. Munro, John H., 2000. "The 'New Institutional Economics' and the Changing Fortunes of Fairs in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: the Textile Trades, Warfare, and Transaction Costs," MPRA Paper 11029, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Feb 2001.
    10. Munro, John H., 2004. "Spanish Merino wools and the Nouvelles Draperies: an industrial transformation in the late-medieval Low Countries," MPRA Paper 15808, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised 22 Mar 2005.
    11. John H. Munro, 2001. "Money, Wages, and Real Incomes in the Age of Erasmus: The Purchasing Power of Coins and of Building Craftsmen's Wages in England and the Low Countries, 1500 - 1540," Working Papers munro-01-01, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
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    More about this item


    luxuries; necessities; clothing; wools; woollen broadcloths; worsteds; says; serges; Flanders; Brabant; Antwerp; Hondschoote; masons; wages.;

    JEL classification:

    • F10 - International Economics - - Trade - - - General
    • L11 - Industrial Organization - - Market Structure, Firm Strategy, and Market Performance - - - Production, Pricing, and Market Structure; Size Distribution of Firms
    • L15 - Industrial Organization - - Market Structure, Firm Strategy, and Market Performance - - - Information and Product Quality
    • L67 - Industrial Organization - - Industry Studies: Manufacturing - - - Other Consumer Nondurables: Clothing, Textiles, Shoes, and Leather Goods; Household Goods; Sports Equipment
    • M30 - Business Administration and Business Economics; Marketing; Accounting; Personnel Economics - - Marketing and Advertising - - - General
    • N63 - Economic History - - Manufacturing and Construction - - - Europe: Pre-1913
    • N93 - Economic History - - Regional and Urban History - - - Europe: Pre-1913
    • O52 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economywide Country Studies - - - Europe

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